Searle’s Girls

Another “prominent male philosopher suddenly found to have long history of sexual harassment accusations” story, where “suddenly found to have”=”has long been known to have but we tried to keep it quiet for a few decades.” The long history this time belongs to John Searle.

Documents obtained by BuzzFeed News show that Joanna Ong, 24, who filed suit against Searle and the University of California Regents last month, was not the first woman to report the 84-year-old professor to the university. Ong’s suit alleges that she was fired from her job as Searle’s research assistant after rejecting his advances.

In 2014, an undergraduate student said Searle told her she couldn’t be his research assistant because she was married and thus wouldn’t be as dedicated to the job.

In 2013, a foreign exchange student said Searle lunged at her and tried to kiss her in his office.

In 2004, a graduate student was so shocked by Searle’s behavior at a dinner event for prospective students that she wrote to the chair of the philosophy department condemning Searle’s “highly inappropriate” actions, which included Searle trying to play footsie with her under the table.

Searle denies Ong’s claims, and questions her motives. There’s a surprise. The university says the usual thing too. Looking into it, mutter mutter.

Some of Searle’s inappropriate behavior was an open secret among the philosophy students and faculty at the flagship University of California campus, which has been grappling with professor–student sexual misconduct scandals since 2015. His rotating stable of young, female assistants were known around campus as “Searle’s Girls.” Before Ong filed her lawsuit, which also alleges Searle watched porn in front of her and made sexist comments, philosophy graduate students struggled with how to address concerns about their department’s star philosopher. Those who did report him said their claims seemed to go nowhere.

If you’re a star philosopher, they let you do it.

Philosophy has a pervasive gender gap, and female philosophers have long said sexual harassment is one major factor that makes it difficult for women to succeed in the field. That’s why Kristina Gehrman wrote a letter to the then-chair of Berkeley’s philosophy department after what she called a “degrading” experience with Searle in 2004.

“I am concerned with the need to raise awareness among the faculty about gender-related issues in general within our community, and with the need to develop some concrete department level practices to prevent and/or respond to specific experiences like mine in the future,” Gehrman wrote in the letter, which was signed by eight other female philosophy graduate students.

Gehrman, then a graduate student in her twenties, met Searle at a department dinner for prospective students, she wrote in the letter, which was obtained by BuzzFeed News. Searle never asked her name, instead calling her “his girl,” she wrote. He invited her skiing in Tahoe and said he had taken an undergraduate female research assistant there before. He rubbed her foot with his under the table, she wrote, and when it was time for dessert, Searle insisted Gehrman share his plate.

He was being friendly.

Gehrman sent her letter, she met with administrators, they told her Searle would get training, and…that was the end of the matter. She transferred to UCLA – she thought about quitting philosophy altogether. Remember that gender gap in philosophy? There it is.

One grad student reported he invited her to his office and then pounced on her. Another reported he refused to hire her as a research assistant because she was married.

“I just worry that you won’t be as dedicated to the job,” she said Searle told her, even though she had received an A- in his class.

Well it is of course true that when women get married a portion of their brain dies.

A graduate student who passed on V.’s complaint about Searle to the philosophy department in 2014 said she never heard from the OPHD until this week, when the department emailed to say it heard she “might have information regarding potential behavior that may be in violation of university policy.”

“At the time, I assumed OPHD was handling the situation,” the graduate student said. “Now that I know about similar complaints, it’s clear that they should have done more.”

Jackson Kernion, a graduate student in the philosophy department, said he understood the faculty was limited in scope and had incomplete information about Searle’s behavior. Still, he said, he felt “there could have been a more vigorous response, given the serious concerns raised by grad students” at both formal and informal meetings.

“A number of Berkeley students had their first contact with academic philosophy by taking one of Searle’s classes,” Kernion said. “It shouldn’t come as a surprise that women and minorities sitting in his classes came away with the impression that they were less than fully welcomed in the field.”

It’s always worth re-reading Sally Haslanger’s paper.

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